Intelligence bureaucracy too complex to control

The phrase "too big to fail" has become a watchword since the Great Recession struck and our government leaped into action with its notorious TARP bailout, now totaling $3.7 trillion. Goldman Sachs is in that category; so are insurance giant AIG and General (now Government) Motors. Lehmann Bros. was allowed to fail, being the unwanted stepchild of Wall Street. But that's another story. The one I want to mention again here is about something "too big not to fail." And that is, sorry to say, our very own federal government.

If anything is clear after the attention-getting, three-part report in The Washington Post detailing the results of a two-year investigation into the gargantuan, secrecy-shrouded alternate world of the American intelligence community, it is that the federal government is in over its head. What does that mean? This summary appears at the beginning of Part One of the series by reporters Dana Priest and William M. Arkin:

"The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work."

Since that fateful, bright September morn when 19 men armed with box-cutters shattered America's blithe sense of isolation from the worst of the world's turmoil, we've gone bonkers in trying to avoid another such attack on us. In nine years, the intelligence apparatus in this country has exploded, now encompassing, according to the report, 1,271 government agencies and nearly 2,000 private companies working on programs "related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in 10,000 locations across the United States." An estimated 854,000 people have top security clearances. In the Washington area alone, the various agencies and companies are in the process of occupying 17 million square feet of office space.

Intelligence agencies are famed for not sharing information they gather with each other. It's apparently a competitive more than a cooperative kind of undertaking. There is lots of redundancy and a jealous safeguarding of prerogatives in that shadowy world. The right hand often has not the slightest idea what the left hand is up to.

One can only imagine how much this vast machinery is costing us, because there's no way to actually come up with the numbers. What kind of return are we getting on this investment? Nobody knows. There's no way to tell. Nobody knows if this humongous thing is working, whether it has saved us from serious damage from terrorist attacks, or whether it's just an ATM for ambitious private contractors, government bureaucrats and Pentagon brass hats.

Something we do know, because he said so, is that one of Osama bin Laden's goals in attacking us was to make already spendthrift Americans go bankrupt more quickly than we would have otherwise. It's hard to argue that he fell short of that.

The virtually overnight massive expansion of this intelligence apparatus is the very definition of complexity, of things becoming so complicated and costly that the marginal costs come to vastly outweigh the marginal benefits. The evidence mounts that we're well on the way to having such complex systems that they defy successful management. What else could explain the willy-nilly way politicians insist on spending (our) money they don't have?

In his masterful book, "The Collapse of Complex Societies," Joseph Tainter points out that complexity is a problem-solving strategy and that "the problems with which the universe can confront any society are, for practical purposes, infinite in number and endless in variety." There comes a time when the problems overwhelm the solutions, and our incredibly expensive efforts to protect us from another Sept. 11 attack may well mean that time is close at hand, although it is likely that we and the other highly industrialized world economic powers possess the means to avert collapse well into the future. Let us pray.

Ron Smith can be heard weekdays, 9 a.m. to noon, on 1090 WBAL-AM and WBAL.com. His column appears Fridays in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is rsmith@wbal.com.

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